Sure, I’m Crazy—But Running Keeps Me Sane!
Mental illness is not a choice. But recovery is.
Wouldn’t it be great if I could start this article by saying that mental health disorders don’t exist in Singapore? Sadly, that’s not the case, and because I suffer from a common mental health issue, I keep tabs on the nation’s efforts to fund initiatives and encourage psychiatric and psychological studies and treatments because I believe these conditions are everyone’s problem, not just mine.
I’ve learned a lot since being diagnosed with a depressive disorder and I applaud the government’s current mental Health initiative, conducted under the auspices of the Ministry of Health and the Singapore Millennium Foundation of the Temasek Trust. This three-year-long research effort has the potential to change lives in the years ahead.
Wondering what can come of this longitudinal research plan? Recommendations for improvements in the areas of mental health services, treatment, unmet social needs, symptom diagnosis, suicides and, importantly, managing the high costs associated with the nation’s mentally ill populace.
Until there’s a cure for every mental health disease in Singapore, I’d like to tell you about how I got on top of my own diagnosis. It has nothing to do with therapists, governments or researchers: I became a runner. If you run, too, you understand this statement: my therapy started with a great pair of running shoes!
The Exercise Effect
As I trolled the Internet for articles that might be of benefit and cruised book shops looking for texts on mental illness topics, I happened upon an American Psychological Association article that opened my eyes about the relationship between mental health and running.
According to psychologists interviewed for the paper, many professionals turn to therapy and medications to treat patients with mental illnesses, but not all of them are aware of the fact that exercise can be equally therapeutic.
I understood what these doctors meant when I went out for a short run right after reading this article. It wasn’t easy because I avoided physical activity like the plague, but it didn’t take long before my mood began to improve and my sense of wellbeing increased. I was huffing and puffing, but it only took five minutes for my mood to change! Cool, I thought, vowing to run again.
Did Inactivity Contribute to My Condition?
I asked that question aloud with only my cat in the room and he offered no opinion! But, Duke University’s James Blumenthal, PhD provided me with a perfect response: "There's good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people.”
He also learned that people who are active and stop exercising can quickly lapse into a state of depression. This made total sense to me, so I kept reading and learned that Blumenthal found the most impressive statistics in people who exercised and took anti-depressants.
Managing My Symptoms
Being able to get on top of my extreme mood swings made life more manageable in all respects and frankly, when my mood moved to the other end of the continuum and I got manic, a good run dissipated my frenzy almost immediately.
I found that I had fewer anxiety attacks born of biological fight-or-flight reactions that triggered heavy perspiration and an elevated heart rate.
But I began to wonder whether running therapy helped only those suffering from the same diagnosis or whether running could help improve every type of mental disorder.
Going back to my data search, I found this conundrum has yet to be solved. Researchers still don’t have a handle on whether running can improve the conditions of people suffering the most extreme mental illnesses, like schizophrenia and profound psychoses. Hopefully, that will be sorted in the near future.
Mind Over Matter
If you love mysteries, you’ll appreciate the findings of psychiatric researchers who concluded that, while there’s lots of proof that exercise mediates certain mental illnesses, it took in-depth research to figure out how muscle use influences the brain.
There are lots of theories of which these are the most popular: Muscles trigger bursts of serotonin or promote neuron growth. Exercise increases blood circulation which enables muscles to send healthy signals to the brain. Another school of thought is that hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis stimulus is the muscle/mood interface key.
Even mental health studies undertaken using rats are valuable tools in assessing human reaction to running and how it elevates moods: Mice who exercise continually stood up to aggressive bullies, hid less and were less stressed.
Those who were sedentary, hid and were easily bullied, mimicking the behaviours of depressed humans. I understand how those mice felt! My stress levels dropped dramatically after I began to run regularly; my brain seems to be on hiatus from the chemicals that drive my extreme mood swings.
Benefits I’m Currently Enjoying
- My stress levels don’t have time to regenerate since I run often enough to keep them under control.
- My “happy chemicals” have increased. You call them endorphins. I call them by a better name!
- My self-confidence is at an all-time high, as is my self-esteem and self-image.
- I’ve made friends with Mother Nature. I used to stay inside; now I get extra vitamin D just running outside.
- My brain capacity and ability to recall events surpasses that of friends my age.
- There’s a better-than-average chance I’ll beat you at Trivial Pursuit thanks to brain power boosts I get from running.
- When I relax, I really relax. I’m more creative and I get lots more done than I did during my couch potato days.
- Running gives my life meaning and a sense of purpose that has a positive impact on my brain.
Finally, I have discovered that I learn better, faster and data sticks around longer since I started my regular run schedule. Even my vocabulary is broader. I guess the only question left to ask is this one: where was running back in my university days?
Has mental illness touched your life? Have you thought about suggesting running to your loved one or friend to help manage their symptoms?
James suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder over his father's sudden death, a failed suicide attempt and was unemployed for a few years. Now he is recovering well after taking up running, encouraged by his friend. He has found a new meaningful life by running daily without fail.
The article is contributed by members of the community. All stories are based on real life personal experiences or actual events encountered by the authors and related parties. Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Editing by RunSociety